Concept: Licensed Tailgating Items
HQ: Warsaw, IN
Sportula carts 2011: 50
Sportula carts 2014: 500 (expected)
Start-up cost: $5,000 (approximately)
Dedicated specialty retail account managers: 4
IDNA employees, non-peak season: 30
IDNA employees, peak season: 60
Motto: Flaunt Your Fanhood!
Strength of concept: Incredible gift ideas for any demographic, any place in America.
Mission: To create great products and then share them with the world.
From 50 to 500 locations in three years, Sportula Products, manufacturer and wholesaler of licensed tailgating items in Warsaw, IN, has taken team spirit to a whole new level.
What flips a burger, connects people with their passions and will be carried in hundreds of locations this coming holiday season? It’s part-spatula, part-sports-fan; it’s The Sportula.
Sportulas are heavy-duty stainless steel spatulas with laser-cut logos and heat-stamped lettering. A Dallas Cowboys fan? Picture a blade featuring a five-point star and “Cowboys” stamped on the handle. A Penn State fan? Picture a blade featuring a Nittany Lion with “Penn State” stamped on the handle. “We refer to it as a novelty grilling spatula that is functional in use,” says David Bazzoni, president and co-owner of Sportula Products. “People just enjoy hanging them up,” he says, noting some customers prefer not to get them dirty. Functional or decorative, Sportulas serve up plenty to talk about, whether on the patio or at the tailgate.
The idea came about in 2009 when Bazzoni was a sales manager for Wildman Business Group’s corporate apparel division, a promotional marketing company in Warsaw, IN, with University of Notre Dame as one of his customers. Wildman had a campus license allowing them to sell corporate apparel and promotional products directly to Notre Dame.
“Notre Dame’s athletic department was in the process of procuring a gift package for their NBC executives, and challenged us to come up with something ‘new and unique’,” says Bazzoni, in other words, not another sweatshirt. “After some considerable brainstorming—and a number of terrible prototypes—The Sportula was born,” says Bazzoni. He went to the team at Wildman and said, I want to sell hamburger flippers. “At first they thought I was crazy,” he says. “But we haven’t looked back since.”
They began with a spatula, er, Sportula, and a solid business plan, and sold their first product in 2010 in a campus store. That same year, they decided to approach the Muncie Mall in Muncie, IN, knowing precious little about specialty retail. “Our sales manager, Marc Roth, rolled into Muncie at about 3:00 a.m. on Black Friday with a van full of Sportulas and a rickety table, and he absolutely killed it. Let’s just say, he sold enough product over two days behind a table in the Muncie Mall to make it glaringly obvious to everyone involved that we needed to develop a top-notch mall cart program,” says Bazzoni.
For the next full year, they worked through mall management teams, introducing Sportula Products to prospective operators throughout the country. In 2011, 50 holiday carts opened from Iowa to Indiana to Kentucky. “Over time, we’ve spread. It’s a big country out there, so our concept is still very new in a lot of markets,” says Bazzoni. (Read: plenty of opportunity for interested specialty retailers to jump on board.)
“One thing that is very powerful in this industry is operator word of mouth. If a concept is successful, then word about that concept’s success will spread very rapidly throughout the industry,” says Bazzoni, especially seasonal concepts, such as Sportula Products, where the two primary sales seasons are Father’s Day and Christmas. (Father’s Day Sportula carts numbered approximately 100 last year.)
In addition to operator word of mouth, SPREE has accelerated their growth rate, growing from 50 to 300 locations after their first year exhibiting in 2012, says Bazzoni. This year, Sportula Products decided to become an executive sponsor. “Being an executive sponsor at SPREE is just one way for us to showcase our long-term commitment to our industry,” he says.
While Sportulas are sold in other outlets, “Specialty retail has proven to be our most explosive growth channel for our licensed products,” says Bazzoni. “We plan to stay because we see such opportunity for growth,” he says.
As their cart operators have grown, so have their licenses. “We have grown to 140 colleges and universities across the country,” says Bazzoni. This was much harder than initially anticipated due to higher education’s selective approval process. Although Notre Dame was the first college to ever see The Sportula, they were not the first college to approve Sportula Products for a national retail license. In fact, Notre Dame was the first school to decline them.
“Notre Dame is a premier licensor, and they challenged us, quite successfully, to develop our strategic plan before they were willing to grant us a retail license. At the time, I was crushed, but in hindsight I am extremely grateful for their guidance and toughness in the early days of our company,” says Bazzoni. “We were granted a Notre Dame license in July of 2010, about one year after we first presented to them, and by that time, we were ready to be a major player in collegiate licensing,” he says.
After garnering licensor approval from major universities, they received approval from Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), in that order.
“We are proud to say we are amongst a very small group of companies in the world who have the opportunity to represent the marks of the NFL as one of their official licensees,” says Bazzoni. NFL is the most popular license in the Sportula Product line. In addition to targeting the sports fan, Sportula Products cater to a customer’s love of their country, community and family with specialty and patriotic items, such as cut outs with US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, in addition to #1 Grandpa, #1 Dad and #1 Mom. “Over Father’s Day, our most popular specialty logo is our #1 Dad design. Throughout the holiday sales season, our most popular specialty logo is our ‘Camo Buck’ design, and our most popular patriotic logo is the United States Marine Corps, Eagle Globe and Anchor design,” says Bazzoni. Whether sports or specialty, the common denominator is passion. “We sell products that connect with someone emotionally,” he says.
Since the product’s inception, Bazzoni has spearheaded a new company, by the name of IDNA Brands, in which Wildman Business Group is now a business partner. “What we do today is create great ideas and bring those ideas to life. Ideas are who we are – I suppose you could say that great ideas are in this company’s DNA,” says Bazzoni. Currently there are three, about to be four (possibly five) lines under the IDNA Brands umbrella.
Sportula’s extended family
What began with one item, The Sportula, has grown to a product family of four, although Sportulas remain the top seller. Today, there are Boasters, cork-backed coasters sold in sets of four; Grill-A-Tongs; and three-piece sets consisting of The Sportula, Tongs and Fork. All products are made of heavy-duty stainless steel, with laser cut designs and heat-stamped hard maple handles. All products come with a convenient bottle opener.
“The 3-piece set is the most profitable product,” notes Bazzoni, with a wholesale of $22.50 and a suggested retail price between $50-$60. (Sportulas wholesale for $10, retail for $25 – $30.) “Sportula products are high volume products, and that is where retailers realize their profits,” he says.
Customers, 80% of whom are women, often knock off multiple recipients on their gift-giving list at a time, especially those that are hard to buy for (read: men). “One visit knocks off dad, uncle and brother,” says Bazzoni. In other words, the average ticket at the cart grows as the gift grows. “At their core, Sportula Products are perfect impulse gift items. People don’t necessarily come to the mall to look for a Sportula product, but they commonly leave with one,” he says.
“We encourage our operators to upsell. The product is strong enough to draw people to the cart. Once they are there, you want to encourage multiple purchases with questions, such as: Who are you buying for? Who else is a sports fan in your family? What’s your favorite team?” says Bazzoni. If the retailer finds out their customer is buying a gift for a big golfer, for instance, the operator knows what to hand them.
As for competition, there isn’t any. “We don’t have competition because these are licensed products. There’s only one Sportula,” says Bazzoni.
Spring training: getting started
Sportula products are sold as a turnkey cart concept. Unlike other products with demo expectations and the like, the learning curve is short. “Even if you know nothing about sports, you can open this cart. We will guide you in your opening order, and the market will guide you through the season,” says Bazzoni. Retailers start by stocking their area’s most prominent local and national teams, as well as other key teams in the nation. As the season progresses, retailers can react to bestselling teams and customer requests in future orders.
Retailers in major cities are well advised to go big with NFL licensed products. But, in general, there are no hard and fast rules that work for the entire country. It all depends upon a retailer’s location. “Take Lincoln, Nebraska for example. Lincoln still does very well with professional product but college products are going to be their bestsellers, namely products representing the University of Nebraska,” says Bazzoni.
For team requests that aren’t represented at the cart, retailers give customers coupons specific to them as an operator. “[Customers] get on sportula.com and get 10% off and the operator gets a 20% product credit,” says Bazzoni. Sportula.com usually has the desired team in its catalog.
Extra large visual merchandising
Retailers must carry Sportula Products exclusively, and agree to Sportula’s visual merchandising program before getting started. “At the end of the day, our job at IDNA Brands is to support our operator base, and for our operators to be successful, they absolutely need to have a great-looking cart,” says Bazzoni. “Simply put, our highest performing operators have the best looking carts,” he says.
“Typically, an authorized retailer can expect to allocate approximately $200-$400 in visual merchandising.” Having the right signage is an integral part of visual merchandising at Sportula Products. “From 30 feet away, we feel that it’s imperative that a customer knows what you’re selling. Sportula Products, by design, are unique enough products to grab people out of the aisle and pull them over to the cart, but where we can, we also augment the cart with location-specific signage that will connect with the largest number of people possible in a given location,” says Bazzoni. “For example, if you are an operator in Texas, we are going to make sure that your cart signage is loaded up with Sportula Products featuring the logos of the Cowboys, Longhorns, Aggies and Texans,” he says.
Retailers can also purchase a jumbo Sportula that can’t be missed from far, far away, and where it is common for customers to use as a photo op, or even buy one for themselves, as Bubba Watson did just this year from the University of Georgia bookstore. (Jumbo Sportulas wholesale for $300 and stand five feet tall.)
The next quarter
IDNA is adding the distribution of two new lines for specialty retailers this year (see sidebar) as well as unveiling a new licensed product line targeting the children’s market, or rather the next generation of fans, in early 2015. While the details of the package aren’t ready to be announced, suffice it to say, Bazzoni is “ridiculously excited” about the concept.
“Great products are created by great people, and those same great people serve our customers. At IDNA Brands, we will do whatever it takes to take care of our operators. If that means not sleeping more than a couple hours a night—or not at all—during the month of December, then that’s what we do as a team to support our operator base. Our operators depend on us to make a living, and that is something we take very seriously,” says Bazzoni. Like a fan’s passion for their team, you can hear, see and feel the passion Bazzoni puts into Sportula Products; passion, team spirit—and fun.